A pup who can roll over and play dead is clever and cute. But if that dog doesn't learn to obey some basic commands, he could wind up injured, lost or — harsh but true — really dead. More than a million dogs are killed on U.S. roads each year, for example.

"Training is an important part of having a dog," says Mary Burch, PhD, director of the American Kennel Club's (AKC) Canine Good Citizen program, which focuses on teaching basic good manners to dogs and responsible ownership to the people who love them. She says that in order to stay safe, every dog should know four basic commands — "sit," "down," "stay" and "come."

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Positive reinforcement in the form of treats and praise work better than punishment when training a dog. You want Fido to look forward to learning new commands. Before each session, have treats (small ones so that you don't create a dog who's obese as well as obedient) on hand. 

Related: How to Keep Your Pooch Safe at the Dog Park

Command 1: "Sit"

This is the foundation for other training behaviors, says Burch. Once a dog sits on command, he’ll more easily learn other commands. What to do:

1. Stand in front of your dog and hold a treat 2 to 4 inches above his head.

2. Move the food toward the back of your dog's head. As he follows it with his eyes he'll naturally begin to lower his tail end to the ground.

3. As soon as the dog begins to sit, say, "Sit."

4. Once he's sitting down all the way, praise him effusively and give him a treat.

Command 2: “Down” 

This command can keep a dog out of trouble when, say, you need to enter into a situation that’s potentially dangerous and you don’t want your pooch to follow you. It's a natural offshoot of the "sit" command and also leads to teaching the "stay" command. What to do:

1. With your dog on your left side, command him to “sit.” 

2. Hold a treat an inch or two in front of his nose.

3. As you say "down," lower the treat straight toward the ground in front of the dog's front feet. To follow the trajectory of the treat, he'll lower his upper body.

4. If your dog doesn’t go all the way down, move the food away from his feet. (This movement has an "L" shape.)

5. When he's all the way down, praise him and give him the treat.

Command 3: "Stay" 

You'll combine this with either "sit" or "down" when you need your dog to remain in one place while you're in another. It also makes it possible for a dog to hang out in situations in which he'd otherwise need to be kept away — like at a backyard barbecue where he needs to stay away from a hot grill. What to do:

1. Begin with your dog on a leash, sitting on your left side. 

2. Keep the leash loose and pivot around to face him. 

3. Say "stay" while holding your open palm — like the signal to "stop" — in front of his face. Take a few steps away from him.

4. After a few seconds walk back toward him. Put your foot on the leash so that he doesn't jump as you praise and reward him. 

Command 4: “Come” 

This command is the one most likely to save a dog's life. The secret to teaching it, says Burch, is to start by getting the dog to come a very short distance and then gradually lengthening the distance. What to do:

1. Start with your dog on a leash. Have him “sit” on your left side.

2. Tell him to “stay” and pivot so you are standing in front of him.

3. Take one step back and say, "Come." If he comes, give him a treat and praise him. If he doesn't come, gently tug on the leash.

4. Repeat the sequence, very gradually adding distance, stepping back two steps, then three and so on.

Related: The Right Way to Walk Your Dog

Special training for special dangers 

Besides these basic commands, your dog may need to learn others that are specific to his environment and personality. For example, water-loving dogs who spend time around pools may need to learn to “swim to the steps,” says Burch. She explains that often a pooch can get in to a pool but he can’t get out. (Another important safeguard for backyard pool owners who have pets and kids: a four-sided fence.)

If you live in an area with snakes, Burch says there are skilled trainers who offer snake-bite-prevention training for dogs using live snakes. The AKC even has special training for city dogs, who need to be able to navigate safely on crowded sidewalks, tolerate noise and moving objects like skateboards, deal with elevators and more. 

Dianne Lange is a Lake Tahoe-based freelance writer specializing in health and travel. She is the author of four books on cancer and a former editor at SELF, Health, Natural Health and Prevention. Her work has appeared on websites such as RealAge.com, SymptomFind.com, WebMD and Everyday Health.